“I believe it’s true that we should never meet our heroes,” Karl Kuehn wails during a swell on “Failure’s Hall Of Fame,” one of the many highlights off of Museum Mouth’s fourth album, Popcorn Fish Guinea Pig. “Life’s like a Monet/ Just squint your eyes, it gains six zeroes.” That perspective shift sits at the heart of the record, which Kuehn primarily wrote after returning to his hometown on the back of the moderate success of his last LP, 2014’s Alex I Am Nothing. Like that record, PFGP is mostly concerned with crushes and mismatched hook-ups, and uses these romantic failures to fuel bitter ruminations that attempt to stake out some comfortable space in the great big world. It’s about fighting against what you feel is your true nature — in Kuehn’s case, it seems to be falling into unhealthy and often unreciprocated relationships — and figuring out how to fight against your default patterns, or at least become empowered by them.
There’s no better encapsulation of the simultaneously goofy and heart-wrenchingly introspective mode that Museum Mouth excels at than the anecdote that closes “History’s Mysteries,” a bummer of a track that examines repeating patterns and what happens when those cycles fail to play out in the way that you anticipate them to. In it, Kuehn meets a guy a little too early in his life story: “I had just turned twenty and the thought of you made me sweat,” he reminisces. “So I waited four years for you to come find me here, but you never came/ And now I’m regretting sadly never whispering ‘daddy’ into those bear ears.” The song ends with him dejectedly coming to the realization that “I’ll always be ‘that guy’.” (Also, let me just note but not make too big a deal out of how important and refreshing it is to have a strong queer voice in pop-punk, which is so often a very heteronormative arena.)
That self-analysis echoes throughout Popcorn Fish Guinea Pig: “Riff From My Head” violently rejects the idea of pining over anyone, but a few songs later Kuehn is already back to hesitantly embracing his past moods: “I swore I would finally move on from unrequited love songs, but I was wrong.” “I want people to come away from this album feeling more powerful than they did going in,” Kuehn explained to Spin. “To me it’s a record about realizing your flaws, finding out they’re not flaws at all, and then owning the SHIT out of them.”
Beyond the lyrical knots, Popcorn Fish Guinea Pig is an album built around very specific and well-defined textures; the coming-into-your-own narrative push only starts to take hold once you’ve spent a little time with it. What’s immediately apparent is the sludgy soup the North Carolina band has cooked up this time around, which is somehow both more accessible and more off-putting than their previous work. It’s only later that you’ll start to get the hang of why everything sounds so messy, and isn’t that true of life as well? The record ends with a long, drawn-out burble of a question: “Would you choose empathy or apathy?” Museum Mouth pretty clearly come down on one side of the equation — it’s up to you to decide where you’ll fall.
Listen via Spin below.